Carolyne Giancola knew how to take "no" for an answer, but she says her bosses didn't.

When she worked as lead teller at the Elliot Park branch of Wells Fargo in Minneapolis, if a regular customer said "no" three times in a row to the offer to sit down with a personal banker, she'd stop asking.

That, according to her superiors, was a mistake. She could never stop pushing additional products on customers.

"When they would leave, my customer service rep would come up to me and tell me 'Why didn't you try to sell them this? Why didn't you try to sell them that?' " Giancola said.

Wells Fargo has come under intense scrutiny since it acknowledged earlier this month that employees may have opened more than 2 million fake accounts in an effort to meet aggressive sales goals.

The bank says it has fired 5,200 employees, and Chief Executive John Stumpf said in Senate testimony Tuesday that "we never directed nor wanted our employees ... to provide products and services to customers they did not want or need."

Former employees like Giancola tell a different story.

Bank tellers who did not refer enough customers to bankers intent on opening new savings or checking accounts would be cajoled and threatened and written up for failure to meet their quotas, former employees say. The reward for meeting the sales targets?

"You would get to keep your job," said Giancola, who quit in the spring of 2009 when she was earning $14.50 per hour.

Last week, the bank announced that it would eliminate all product sales goals in branches, invest in more monitoring and controls and improve training. Stumpf apologized in his Senate testimony for what happened, which resulted in $185 million in fines but no admission of wrongdoing.

Former employees say they perceived systemic pressure for greater sales, long a source of pride for Stumpf and his predecessors at Wells Fargo and Minneapolis-based Norwest Bank, which acquired Wells Fargo and took its name in 1998.

"They called them solutions, which made it seem like the customer needed the product," said a former Wells Fargo teller who asked not to be identified because she now works for another bank.

Once she pulled up the profile of an older man who had three accounts, one for his direct deposit, one for checking and one for savings. The man became upset about the savings account, the teller said, because he hadn't known about it. It was empty and he was paying for it, for no reason. "It happened a lot with elderly customers who didn't do online banking," the teller said.

Carrie Tolstedt, the executive formerly in charge of the bank's 6,000 branches, was praised as a "standard-bearer of our culture" by Stumpf when she announced her retirement this past summer. Tolstedt earned more than $20 million in annual bonuses from 2010 to 2015, years in which Wells Fargo admits its employees were opening fraudulent accounts and the bank turned a typical annual profit of $20 billion.

Known as the "watchmaker" for her attention to detail in the company's massive branch network, according to the Wall Street Journal, Tolstedt exerted pressure for cross-selling that carried down through regional managers to district managers and branch managers and then personal bankers and tellers across the country.

A Wells Fargo spokeswoman in Los Angeles last week declined to comment on the specific details of cross-selling and employee incentives and penalties. In a statement, the company said it is "focused on deepening customer relationships through our needs assessment process and helping customers succeed financially."

Joyce Gill managed the Wells Fargo at Nicollet Avenue and 31st Street from 2002 to 2011, and said the pressure to make sales ramped up during the latter half of her years at the branch. In all, she spent 20 years with the firm but left, she says, because she couldn't in good conscience push her employees and customers as hard as managers wanted. "I drank the Kool-Aid for a while, but it just became ridiculous," she said.

It does not surprise her that allegations of fraud came out, she said. She and other managers tried to soften the message from above, but over time, "there was no filtering it." Either people had to make increasingly difficult goals, or they'd be fired, she said.

"People need their jobs. The only reason why I walked away from a 20-year career and have been struggling ever since, is because ethically and morally, I couldn't do it anymore," Gill said. "I knew when I came to work in the morning that I would have to say something to someone that wouldn't sit right with me."

When Farsheed Fozouni started at Wells Fargo in 2006, tellers had to sell 45 solutions — financial products like a debit card, credit card, checking account — to customers each quarter.

That was the minimum. Incentive pay kicked in at $2 per "solution" over the threshold of 45, and $2.50 for any product sold over a higher threshold, and so on. But incentive pay for tellers was capped around $650 per quarter, and the quotas kept rising.

"When I left in 2012, the minimum in order to keep your job was 90 solutions," said Fozouni, who worked at branches in Texas and California. "Each year they just kept getting more and more ridiculous."

He said he saw a grown man reduced to tears by the pressure, and customers constantly pushed to buy products they didn't want.

Any fraud Fozouni heard about resulted in people getting fired, but the outcome was often new rules that made meeting sales targets more difficult for those who remained. For instance, Fozouni worked at a branch in California for about a year, and one of his predecessors had been caught selling multiple debit cards to elderly customers on the argument that they needed spares all over the house — 10 debit cards to one customer in one case.

That person was fired, and the rules changed so that Wells Fargo employees could only be credited for three "solutions" per customer. That made it even harder to meet the quotas, Fouzouni said, since even legitimate sales of products didn't count after a customer signed up for three.

Adam Belz • 612-673-4405

Twitter: @adambelz